Tony Jaa reunites with the team that helped make his name in the martial arts world, but both he and co-star Jeeja Yanin are eclipsed by impressive up-and-comer Marrese Crump in this otherwise underwhelming action sequel.
There is a moment midway through Tom Yum Goong 2 when RZA's principle villain LC begins monologuing to our captured hero, Kham (Tony Jaa). "We were all real impressed with what you did in Sydney," he declares, "but the last five years have been so disappointing". In this moment, LC speaks not only for himself, but for martial arts fans the world over. After the one-two punch of Ong-Bak and the first Tom Yum Goong, Jaa looked set to conquer the martial arts world. But his apocalyptic meltdown during production on Ong-Bak 2, which Sahamongkol Films had recklessly allowed him to direct, saw Jaa's career go into a tailspin that is only now showing signs of recovery.
As in the first film, Kham's sacred elephant Khon has been stolen. Only this time, the poachers are working for a nefarious underground organisation planning to blackmail Kham into assassinating the President of Katana and facilitate a military coup. Framed for murder, Kham goes on the run, but with help from his alleged victim's daughter, Ping Ping (Jeeja Yanin) and bumbling cop Sgt Mark (Petchtai Wongkamlao), he must evade Interpol, thwart LC's plan and rescue his beloved elephant.
Tom Yum Goong 2 wisely relocates the action to Thailand, where the baffling inconsistencies of the first film's Australian setting can be forgotten. Much to the film's benefit, there are fewer attempts at comedy this time out too, and Wongkamlao is largely sidelined as a result. Instead the film focuses on the action as much as possible, and when dealing with hand-to-hand scuffles between Jaa, Yanin and LC's stable of individually numbered assassins, the film delivers. However, when director Prachya Pinkaew and stunt choreographer Panna Rittikrai attempt large action set pieces, particularly an extended sequence in which Kham must fend off a vast biker gang - across rooftops and along highways - the results are less successful.
Strangely much of the action - including one-on-one fights - appears to have been shot on sound stages in front of green screens, with scenery either composited or computer-generated afterwards. The results prove frequently distracting, and prestige moments such as the two pivotal fights between Jaa and Marrese Crump, LC's right-hand man dubbed "No.2", are tarnished slightly by the poor backdrops.
Despite that, however, US-born Crump emerges as a major martial arts discovery and the film's greatest asset. A practitioner of numerous styles including the controversial jailhouse rock, Crump previously worked as fight choreographer on Wrong Side of Town, in which he starred opposite Rob Van Dam and Dave Bautista. He also served as RZA's stunt double in last year's The Man With The Iron Fists. Here the two performers not only share the screen, but Crump more than outshines his villainous counterpart. Furthermore, Crump seems easily capable of taking out all his onscreen adversaries, and despite what the script might dictate, frequently appears to have the upper hand against both Yanin and Jaa. On the basis of this performance alone, we can expect great things from Marrese Crump in the future.
Elsewhere in the film, RZA is clearly having fun in his role, as he continues to champion martial arts in cinema, even if he's not always wholly convincing. Audiences are also gifted an appearance from Yayaying Rhatha Phongam aka Ying, the stunning beauty from Nicolas Winding Refn's Only God Forgives. As "No.20", Ying is the sole female member of LC's deadly army, as well as his personal squeeze, and has a few fun moments along the way, though clearly isn't much of a fighter in real life.
There are moments in Tom Yum Goong 2 when Tony Jaa displays a fine level of fitness, speed and athleticism, but at other times he looks bigger and slower than in the past. The big question hanging over him now asks whether he has what it takes to come back - repair the damage, both to his reputation, image and physical condition - and reclaim the mantle many assumed to be his back in 2005.
While there are numerous fights throughout Tom Yum Goong 2 choreographed with a degree of competency and cinematic flair, nothing jumps off the screen in the same way Jaa's earlier collaborations with Pinkaew and Rittikrai did. Jeeja's inclusion always feels like an afterthought, and despite her proven abilities, her character Ping Ping never feels like a legitimate threat or asset to the narrative. No effort is made to build any kind of relationship - romantic or otherwise - between her and Kham. They simply seem to turn up and help when the other is getting their butt kicked.
While Tom Yum Goong 2 is not going to restore our confidence in Tony Jaa as cinema's next martial arts legend, it is a modest yet encouraging step in the right direction. Right now, however, with the world premiere of The Raid 2: Berandal just days away, the title remains firmly in Indonesia's corner if we are looking for envelope-pushing action in South East Asia. Hopefully whatever bridges needed rebuilding at Sahamongkol or elsewhere have been done so successfully and Jaa can get his career back on track. Hopefully his work in Fast & Furious 7 and Skin Trade will help create more opportunities overseas for the 37-year-old before it's too late, because the only name on audiences' lips after watching Tom Yum Goong 2 will be that of Marrese Crump. That guy is going places.